At 82, Archbishop Hughes is still making tracks
He swims. He bikes. He used to play a mean game – well, let’s call it an intensely passionate game – of racquetball until he tore the quadriceps tendon in his right knee two years ago.
But retired Archbishop Alfred Hughes, 82, is now fully healed. As he attacks New Orleans’ potholes with his 21-speed Trek bicycle on weekends, he makes sure he goes to confession first.
Those white images of bicycles painted in the right lane of city streets, international signs to motorists suggesting they ought to give cyclists a share of the road, might as well be Egyptian hieroglyphics to cell-phone-wielding Big Easy drivers.
Check the rear-view mirror
“My rule of thumb is to be cautious and check out with my rear-view mirror what’s coming behind me,” Archbishop Hughes said, reflecting on the hazards of riding a bike on New Orleans’ streets.
“I usually cycle over the weekend because there’s less traffic, and I’m very mindful of the tragedies we’ve had here involving cyclists,” he said. “Traveling down South Carrollton (Avenue) is not easy. The cars travel very close to you, and the bigger ones – the trucks and buses – have those side-view mirrors that stick out into the bike lane.”
A small investment may reap big dividends for Archbishop Hughes’ actuarial table. He bought a bike rack recently for his car, and he plans to drive from his small apartment at Notre Dame Seminary, where he teaches courses in fundamental spiritual theology and the spirituality of the ordained priesthood as well as provides spiritual direction for 30 persons, to City Park, where the grass is green and the hazards are a few ducks and joggers.
He even discovered the nifty cycling path along Wisner Boulevard, bordering Bayou St. John, which provides plenty of added protection.
“There are some wonderful areas to cycle in City Park,” he said. “The bike path on Bayou St. John is a beautiful one, especially in the summertime because it’s shaded. In order just to get there from the seminary, it’s about five miles each way. But with the bike rack, I can park at City Park, and that opens up a number of possibilities.”
Always tried to stay fit
Even as a young man, Archbishop Hughes said he enjoyed engaging in regular exercise. His father loved to walk. When Archbishop Hughes was studying in the seminary, he played handball and jogged to stay fit, and when he was a priest in the 1970s, he discovered racquetball, and he continued playing for 40 years until his knee injury, which made him cautious about making any sharp movements.
His doctor and physical therapist recommended he try an exercise regimen that included swimming and cycling. Three or four days a week, Archbishop Hughes swims about a half-mile, either at Loyola University or at the seminary swimming pool. His usually bikes about 10 miles on the weekends.
“I miss the social dimension and the competition of racquetball, but it’s good exercise,” he said.
His “hybrid” bike – a cross between a mountain bike and a road bike – may have 21 speeds, but he uses only seven. He’s not out to set land-speed records.
“I’m a great believer that if you let your body or your mind or your spirit go, they will begin to atrophy, and you’re going to go downhill very fast,” Archbishop Hughes said.
As for his racquetball injury, the only thing worse than the physical pain was that it came in the rubber game of a three-game match against Father Joe Krafft, a seminary professor, with Archbishop Hughes clinging to a one-point lead but needing to win by two.
“I stretched and I was about to try to get to a ball and my knee crumpled underneath me and my racquet went under the ball,” Archbishop Hughes said. “If my knee had gone out in the cause of victory, I wouldn’t have felt so bad. But I didn’t get to the ball.”
In addition to his seminary teaching, Archbishop Hughes conducts a heavy schedule of spiritual direction, offering guidance to about 15 seminarians and 15 priests, deacons and laypersons. On Saturdays, he offers spiritual direction to lay retreatants at St. Joseph Abbey’s Christian Life Center. He also gives days of recollection for priests and directs retreats the Archdiocese of New Orleans Retreat Center (the former Cenacle) in Metairie.
Archbishop Hughes spends most Fridays at Project Lazarus, where he ministers to those who are homeless and are dealing with AIDS and HIV.
“Most of them are not Catholic, but it’s very important for me to walk with people in need and listen to them,” Archbishop Hughes said. “Some of them have never been listened to in their lives, and so many of them have been deeply wounded by the way they’ve been treated by others early on in their lives and continuing in their lives.
“Initially, people who are part of that experience are suspicious of the church and think that because of church teaching they are being rejected. It’s challenging to build bridges to them and build friendships. But it’s interesting to see that once you establish trust, how much they will open up. Those people who have gone through what they have gone through are conscious of the fact that they cannot save themselves. They need help, and they are open to talking about God. They may not be committed to any church tradition, but they are Christians in a vague way. One step can often be just helping them to read the Bible again.”
Archbishop Hughes brings bibles with him for residents who request one.
“After I listen to them and pray with them I give them a blessing,” he said. “Now they will not let me go without receiving a blessing. And, the staff needs to be listened to as much as the clients because of all they’re going through.”
Archbishop Hughes said whenever he gives priests’ or seminarians’ retreats, he tries to let them know how important it is to stay in good physical shape so that they can give their best to others.
“It’s important to pay attention to the whole person,” he said. “It’s important to be doing something that is emotionally engaging you with other people. I think it’s important to be doing something intellectually that stimulates you and keeps your mind active. And, it’s very important spiritually to be engaged both in personal prayer and preparing as a priest to help others.”
Exercise is something he thinks more seniors should pay attention to.
“It gives me energy,” Archbishop Hughes said. “I find that when I exercise, I’m exhilarated. The blood is circulating through the body freely, and the mind is alert. I also try to be disciplined about eating in a balanced way and try to be as regular as possible with sleep. Those are all ways in which the body can be supportive of emotions, the mind and the spirit.”